Reviews in this issue:
- Planet X - Quantum
- The Bearded - Hope | Omid
- Sympozion – Kundabuffer
- Pinnacle - Meld
- Different Strings - ...It's Only The Beginning
- Abramis Brama - Live!
Planet X - Quantum
Tracklist: Alien Hip-Hop (7:11), Desert Girl (6:04), Matrix Gate (4:08), The Thinking Stone (4:11), Space Foam (4:45), Poland (5:22), Snuff (4:57), Kingdom Of Dreams (6:48), Quantum Factor (7:09)
If you like your prog gutsy, complex and with more than its fair share of metallic tinged fusion, then you may well already be a fan of Planet X. If not then Quantum might be as good a place to start. Some five years since their last studio release MoonBabies Messrs Sherinian and Donati return with nine stellar instrumental tracks to prick up the ears and to get your feet tapping - albeit awkwardly. Since MoonBabies Tony MacAlpine has departed and to be replaced by two guest guitarists - Brett Garsed and the formidable Allan Holdsworth. The bass seat is also held by two musicians - the returning Jimmy Johnson and Rufus Philpott. Of course fans of Sherinian will know that all these guest musicians have previously played with Derek somewhere along the line.
So why a new Planet X album? Why not just a new album from Derek Sherinian. Well as I see it there are enough differences between Sherinian's solo work and Planet X to warrant this. Granted there is common ground with an all instrumental album featuring various virtuoso guest musicians, but I suppose one of the main factors lies in the input from Virgil Donati, who is responsible for eight of the nine compositions on Quantum, and musically the tracks have a more complex rhythmic basis, leaning much closer to the fusion camp than perhaps Sherinian's more rock orientated solo albums.
The album kicks off with a slightly dark, atmospheric string arrangement before a salvo of drums takes us into the busy driving groove of Alien Hip-Hop and the tone is immediately set up for the album. A version of Alien Hip-Hop originally appeared back in 1999 on the excellent Serious Young Insects album from the Donati side project, On The Virg. The track flows effortlessly to and from this groove to a more plodding Jeff Beck inspired "pump" with Sherinian and Garsed playing an infectious harmonised theme before Garsed moves into a somewhat laid back legato solo. Sherinian then takes a brief solo before another rhythmic change and a sort of deranged version of a riff that Led Zepp might have come up with - from then on it is all hell let loose.
Desert Girl again opens with Sherinian although this time on piano and accompanied by the familiar swelling chords of Allan Holdsworth. Once again the rhythmic structure of the track is varied, alternating and challenging. Great grooves through to driving rock/fusion passages which in turn are mutated into ELP on steroids style passages. Virgil Donati is the spark for me and his drumming is never predictable and always has something happening that makes you listen more closely. Holdsworth delivers a great solo adding the icing on the cake.
Matrix Gate could well have been a Dream Theater outtake, although Sherinian pushes the envelope further than his former band mates would perhaps have taken it. Actually as I listened to the album more and more the Dream Theater references became more apparent, albeit in brief snippets. Matrix Gate features a different style of solo here from Garsed and one that employs his rather unique two hand hammering style.
The Thinking Stone sees Holdsworth return for his second (and last) appearance on the album, taking on the middle section solo. As far as I can work out Garsed is responsible for the rest of the guitar on the track (and of course the album).
As seems fairly typical for me when reviewing albums that Derek Sherinian is involved with, I hardly seem to have mentioned his contributions to the music. I find it a testament to the guy that he never seems to dominate the proceedings - surprising (and refreshing) for such a great player. And no better exemplified than in Space Foam and Poland, where his playing is ever present but never intrusive. Snuff however sees Sherinian take on some soloing, trading licks with Brett Garsed in a distinctly Holdsworth styling - from both.
Kingdom Of Dreams is a fairly grinding track with off the wall rhythmic flourishes thrown in. Great solos from Garsed and Sherinian which remain "in context" and are a great plus for the music on Quantum. Although an instrumental album the musical emphasis is placed heavily on ensemble playing with the solo breaks being the release, without ever drifting of into endless widdling. Even Virgil's "drum solos" during Kingdom Of Dreams and Quantum Factor are held inside the framework of the music, never appearing to be out of place.
I'm big fan of Derek Sherinian and Virgil Donati so together we have to be on a winner. Add Allan Holdsworth and the three other contributing musicians and you have the basis for an incredible album. And that's exactly what this is, an incredible album. Each time I've returned to Quantum it has brought a smile to my face and never ceases to impress me. So as I said in the opening paragraph - if you like your prog gutsy, complex and with more than its fair share of metallic tinged fusion then - buy this album.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
The Bearded - Hope | Omid
CD One : The Bearded's Project: Hope (Parts I-VII) (37:57), Spock's Beard: Carry On / The Doorway / There Was A Time [acoustic medley] (6:45), Coast To Coast: Walking The Thin Line (5:20), Kai Heyrock: At The Hand Of An Angel (8:03), Futile: Frontier Planet (3:43), Projection: It Won't Last Forever (11:10), Speaker's Corner: The Best Small Country [On The Globe] (5:14)
CD Two : Glistening Dawn: The End Of Childhood (15:22), Neal Morse: The Way (4.30), The It In You: Talk To Me (8:05), Kaldera: Trocadero (3:29), Roland Enders: The Soldier (11:01), Hope: I Could Die (3:47), Asgaart: The Tales Of A Scottish Poet (7:07), Disclosed Element: Shattered (4:53), The Healing Road: Crovenia / The Bearded's Project: Hope [reprise] (19:39)
Every now and then a release comes along that surprises with its diversity and creativity. This double CD is one such release. The Bearded is the collective name for the German Spock’s Beard fan base, or community as they prefer to be known. Together they have produced an album to support ‘German Aid for Afghan Children’ an organization created in 1998 to benefit the medical and educational needs of Afghan refugee women and children. It’s abundantly clear from the outset that The Bearded includes some very talented musicians amongst its membership. In addition to contributions with their own bands several members collaborated via the Internet under the banner The Bearded's Project for the mammoth title track. Both Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse have thrown in their support by contributing one previously unreleased track apiece. The album goes under the joint title of Hope and Omid (the Afghan word also meaning hope).
The Bearded's Project opening 38-minute epic Hope (Parts I-VII) is as suggested divided into seven distinct sections and bearing in mind how it was pieced together flows much better than I expected. The all keyboard symphonic intro gives way to compelling guitar riffs and it’s these contrasting moods that set the scene for the rest of the piece. As the music twists and turns inventive musicianship is revealed around every corner. Featuring some very good and varied vocals throughout only on a couple of occasions is it let down by suspect performances. Early on the most clichéd and comical hard rock posturing I’ve ever encountered join the aforementioned riffs. And at the midway point a bluesy section includes a Tom Waits influenced barroom drawl that sounds totally out of sync with the rest of the suite. On a more positive note it concludes with a soaring Misplaced Childhood era Steve Rothery style guitar solo.
Spock's Beard themselves are next up with a recent live acoustic medley that includes the underrated Carry On and an all to brief guitar duet from The Doorway. Coast To Coast continue the mood with the bright and acoustic Walking The Thin Line with its light jazzy Canterbury flavour. Kai Heyrock’s At The Hand Of An Angel is an engaging piece of psychedelic rock with melodic mellotron and moog colourings. Frontier Planet from Futile on the other hand is a disappointing instrumental saturated with spacey guitar echoes. Projection up the ante with It Won't Last Forever, an appealing mid tempo song distinguished by chiming acoustic guitars. It eventually soars out of sight with a memorable electric guitar coda. Speaker's Corner’s poppy The Best Small Country [On The Globe] takes the prize for the albums most off the wall song with a suitably bubbly female vocal.
Glistening Dawn launch CD Two with The End Of Childhood surprisingly one of the few tracks that comes close to emulating the sound of Spock’s Beard. This fifteen minute opus opens with a synth fanfare followed by some blistering Ryo Okumoto flavoured Hammond work and a melodic acoustic song section. The harmonies throughout are impeccable including an a cappella part that harks back to Gentle Giant inspired SB. Neal Morse does his bit with a folksy ballad The Way that includes spine tingling multi part harmonies from the man himself on an undercurrent of mellotron and acoustic guitar. The It In You provide a breezy slice of smooth jazz with the instrumental Talk To Me which incorporates nimble saxophone, intricate bass lines, and cool grand piano in the vein of Oscar Peterson. Keith Emerson fans in particular will be impressed.
Kaldera’s instrumental Trocadero makes a fine companion to the previous track with energetic yet melodic synth and bass standing out. The Soldier by Roland Enders is dominated by fluid Mark Knopfler style guitar work and a vocal that sounds remarkably like The Tangent’s Andy Tillison. Flute and harpsichord like keys add a medieval ambiance at the midway point. In contrast Hope’s I Could Die is a heavy slice of space rock with metallic riffs, swirling synths and an over pronounced snare sound. It sounds fine in this company but a whole album of this would be too much. Asgaart’s catchy The Tales Of A Scottish Poet takes us to prog-folk territory as inhabited by Mostly Autumn and Iona. The female vocals here are not in that league but the melodic David Gilmour inspired guitar work is in a class of its own.
Another change of style for Shattered by Disclosed Element a melodic combination of pop and prog with husky vocals that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones. Despite some excellent competition The Healing Road’s mini-epic Crovenia is the highlight of disc two. This is a glorious melange of neo-prog that draws on Steve Hackett, Mike Oldfield, Peter Gabriel, VDGG and Tony Banks amongst others for inspiration. Moments of high drama glide effortlessly into passages of poetic beauty. The skilled musicianship refrains from going over the top until the very end where strident vocals, stirring guitar and celestial organ send shivers down the spine. It segues briefly into Hope [reprise] with gentle classical guitar and words spoken in Italian providing a tranquil if unusual close.
It would be unfair to single out individual contributions suffice to say that the performances are uniformly excellent throughout. Add some very strong song writing and superb production and you have one formidable album. In the quality stakes CD Two has the edge over CD One but there’s more than enough fine music here to go round. In addition to the mix of jazz, blues, pop and mainstream rock in the shorter songs, the three longer tracks provide 73 minutes of superior prog that should satisfy the most discerning of connoisseurs. Putting to one side for the moment that this is in aid of charity, a DPRP recommendation is assured based on the musical merits alone, which deserves to be heard by all.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Sympozion – Kundabuffer
Tracklist: Patterns (3:34), Happy War Holiday (8:05), Bird (3:41), Grapefruit (8:48), Six (4:07), Zona (8:06), Too Much (4:53), Grapefruit Variations (10:54)
Well, this one was a bit of a surprise. Sympozion is a young group (all in their mid-20’s) from Tel-Aviv, Israel, formed in 2000 by Arik Hayat and Elad Abraham. They have been through many line-up changes before stabilising and recording this debut release. Eight tracks in all, mainly instrumental but with a couple of vocals in Hebrew - and it’s excellent. The band comprises Arik (keyboards/recorder/vocals) and Elad (guitar/recorder) with Ori Ben-Zvi (guitar), Dan Carpman (bass/vocals) and Boris Zilberstein (drums) plus added flute on three tracks from guest Ilan Salem. These guys can play and the invention and enthusiasm they bring to what they do is palpable. You get the impression that they love playing together and probably spend most of the time smiling when they do.
This is uplifting stuff. The notes in the press release state RIO, avant-garde, jazz-fusion and chamber music influences but their sound is certainly not a copy of anything in particular, more an amalgamation of varied influences. The vocals would be way too heavy and colour the proceedings too much if they were overused but, wisely, they are kept in reserve and used on only two tracks. There is a simplicity and innocence to the vocals that add much even if you don’t understand the language. No lyrics are supplied so I can’t comment on their content.
The CD opens strongly with Patterns; flute over rhythmic jazz piano stabs. The guitars come in winding around each other in a smooth embrace – angularity but not in the same way you’d find with recent King Crimson pieces. The bass is noteworthy throughout the album for the tunefulness of the playing and the contribution in driving the pieces along. The piano remains rhythmic and the guitars simply fly. Happy War Holiday is great stuff with plenty of movement from all the players. You can hear Gentle Giant and Camel influences in the guitar and recorder sections but there is much more than this going on and jazz-fusion sounds are present while retaining a great feel for melody. One of the strongest things about this album is the way that however intricate the music gets, melody is never far away. This is not a difficult album by any standards, simply a joy. There is depth, imagination and excellent playing in evidence here and the pace is carried throughout with a variety of sounds and great ideas spilling out all over the place.
Bird has a busy rhythmic pulse beneath the uplifting multi-layered vocal, the flute briefly bringing Camel to mind again. Grapefruit is a magnificent instrumental showcase with Echolyn/Gentle Giant and Bach influences to the fore. Tempo and rhythm changes make this the most varied piece I’ve heard in ages. A rising scale is extended and built up brilliantly before a downbeat section and then a jump back into Echolyn territory. Easy bass-led jazz, some Gentle Giant, a dash of King Crimson then a left turn into sweeping piano and busy guitar. Wonderful. Modern classical influenced passages and theme variations are followed by a fabulously presented fugue to top it off. Hats off to these guys for putting together a beautiful, exciting and flowing extended instrumental that could compete with anyone.
Six has a dissonant overlapping keyboard and piano parts and a sort of jazzy Zappa feel while Zona starts with a simple theme under a short vocal before a distinct shift into Crimson and fusion territory with variations on the main theme. Too Much is a bright and interesting number with a great ensemble feel. The tracks all work well together and the album moves at a brisk pace, the melodies are engaging and the instrumental passages thrilling and enjoyable, layer upon layer of melody and rhythm, but the music is not weighed down by the instrumental prowess. A mention should be made of Udi Koomran’s production, which keeps things vibrant and clear throughout and there is a dynamic flow through this album that propels it along. I had to repeat play it several times.
Final piece, Grapefruit Variations, is much more than simply a rehash of themes from the original Grapefruit. The playing is simply wonderful and it just seems right when the piano takes on a Tango feel towards the end.
Since this album was recorded co-founder Elad has left the group to be replaced by Erez Kriel. This is a shame but hopefully they can continue in the current vein and produce more great music. For fans of instrumental prog, this should go straight into the “Must Hear” pile. Some may find it a little tricky but I feel it lacks the off-putting smugness that many such releases possess and none of the playing is over the top. First class material and musicianship - you could do much worse than grab hold of this one.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Pinnacle - Meld
Tracklist: Information Overload (10:22), Always Somewhere Else (6:10), Love In Our Hands (10:40), Forever Changed (3:44), Built For Speed (for Eliza Dushku) (4:52), The Deepest Sea (8:33), Two Eyes Open (4:26), The Life In A Year (18:49)
I’ll begin by admitting that I was immediately put off by the lyrics of the long first track on this album, Information Overload. The song takes rather obvious shots at such easy targets as reality TV (or “reali-TV,” as it’s written and sung), cellphones, and, well, information overload in general. In fact, I ejected the CD on my first attempted listening as soon as I got to the lyric “If a tree falls in the forest, who can it sue?” Maybe I’ve just heard too many cynics going on about this kind of thing for too long and don’t feel the need to have it sung to me in progressive rock.
But I’m happy to say that when I dutifully returned to the album, I found not only significantly better lyrics in most of the other songs but also, and more importantly, a whack of good music (“whack” is a technical term I’ve just invented meaning “more than an hour” – mainly to be used pejoratively). The members of this progressive power trio from Pennsylvania (guitarist/singer Karl Eisenhart, bassist Bill Fox, drummer Greg Jones) certainly have chops to burn – and they display them I suppose most effectively on the tellingly named five-minute instrumental Built For Speed but also throughout most of the sometimes too-long compositions on this album.
I have to say at the outset that the production does a disservice to all three, though, especially (alas – as is too often the case) to the drums and percussion. Fortunately, Greg Jones likes tom-toms, because those sound fine; but the bass drum is flat and the snare drum hollow and “tunky” in most songs, and the cymbals (especially the hi-hat) too often tick and hiss at an annoying frequency. Bassist Fox has a nice growly bass tone, but the instrument is buried a bit too far back in the mix, I’d say, considering especially that in a power trio the bass has a lot of work to do. The lead guitar comes across best, Eisenhart’s fluid playing and clear tone cutting through the foundation of percussion and synthesizer on most of the songs.
And what are those songs like? Good, solid 21st-century power-trio progressive rock. There’s less of a Rush influence than you might expect from a progressive trio, though it can be heard in the guitar sound here and there and in some nice busy drum passages particularly; and in fact, the songs are more varied than the songs on a Rush album typically are (and that judgement comes from a Rush fan of more than three decades’ standing). But the variety sometimes strikes me as being for its own sake, especially on some of the longer songs. The final, eighteen-minute song The Life In A Year is not entirely unindebted, I’d have to say, to Spock’s Beard, especially that band’s more recent long multi-part compositions like A Guy Named Sid or A Flash Before My Eyes. And in fact this band has, according to its promo materials, both opened for Spock’s Beard and “backed Nick D’Virgilio . . . in concert,” so any influence is one they’ve come by honestly. However, the longer songs don’t hang together as well, to my ear, as Spock’s Beard’s – they seem to be “epic” because that’s what’s expected of more-or-less traditional progressive rock.
And Pinnacle has one other slight shortcoming: the vocals. Guitarist and main composer Eisenhart is also the singer, at it’s not at all that he has a bad or a weak voice. In fact, in many of the songs, it suits the music and lyrics pretty well. But especially because it also suffers a bit from the slightly high and flat production I’ve mentioned, his voice lacks the depth and range that might help lift the material to the next level.
All in all, a strong and enjoyable fairly heavy second-wave progressive-rock album. The musicianship is very fine; the songs are inventive and varied; the album is full of energy. I just don’t quite hear the spark that I need to hear to recommend the album unreservedly. It’s very good and will disappoint nobody (though beware the lyrics of that first song!), and this is clearly a band with a lot of potential. It’s just not quite there yet.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Different Strings - ...It's Only The Beginning
Tracklist: ...It's Only The Beginning (3:08), All Over Again (6:53), Dead Man Walking (7:28), Beyond Infinity (10:24), Around The World (14:32), All Over Again [radio edit] (4:32)
Pity this is in fact a demo, because there is quite a lot in the music despite the poor production, and it is a kind of music that I enjoy listening to. In general we are talking about a neo-progressive band with some heavier side (Dream Theater-like). To be straight from the beginning: I do not associate to neo-prog the negative connotation Marillion has attributed to the genre. Anyway, Different Strings is actually a one-man band: Chris Mallia. Well, almost. Chris plays all instruments and has composed the music, but the vocals are the work of Alan Mayo. As for the name you may have guessed it right from the start: it's a pointer to Rush's heart-breaking masterpiece.
Dead Man Walking was released as a single back in 2004 and is arguably the album's highlight. It has a very smooth melody that vaguely reminds me of no-man's Carolina Skeletons. Around The World starts as an absolute pointer to Marillion and something in the vocal lines makes me sing "She's got her hooks in you...". Later on things get more complex and a little bit too far-stretched towards the end- I would like to hear a more compact version of this song in the future as the different bits and pieces do seem a bit unconnected. All Over Again and Beyond Infinity are tracks that kick off radiating the Alan Parson's 70's and 80's pop-prog feel. Then something more wicked this way comes and Dream Theater textures and complex arrangements come into play. All Over Again also comes in a radio-edit version, which I prefer to the longer original one. Simply, the refrain and catchy melody are enough to make a simple and straight to the point pop tune that doesn't really need a complex progressive counterpart. As for the vocals, they are adequate and sometimes remind me a bit of Nick Barrett. As for the other instruments (all played by Chris), the work is more than decent with the keyboards standing out a bit from the rest.
All in all, this guy seems to have something to offer to progressive music, and I think he deserves a chance to find himself a decent record deal and then re-work on this material, with an emphasis on a better production. I was hesitating to leave this CD unrated, since I find it a bit unfair to let the flawed production reflect on the rating. Anyway I give it a 6.5 out of 10 but I would not mind at all to review a possible future version. I'm sure that a better production and a little bit richer material would guarantee a higher rating. Maybe I should add that this is stuff with good chances to appeal to fans of neo-prog or mellow progressive rock. Less interesting I guess for those of you looking for heavier or more technical and complex music - even if the music here has such elements too. Ah, and a comment on the album title: it can give us an idea about the (justified) ambition of Chris Mallia.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Abramis Brama - Live!
Tracklist: Vad Jag Ser (4:33), Kejsarens Nya Kläder (5:10), Säljer Din Själ (4:55), Nålen (5:39), Kall Som Sten (3:38), Mjölk Och Honung (7:18), Bilder (7:04), Barkbrödslåten/Men Mitt Hjärta Skall Vara Gjort Av Sten (6:41),Mamma Talar (4:00), I Evighetens Nav [bonus studio cut] (5:38)
In their own words, here is an extremely short biography of Sweden's Abramis Brama: Started 1997, first album 1999 (Dansa Ttokjävelns Vals), changed singer, second album 2001 (När Tystnaden Lagt Sig...), third album 2003 (Nothing Changes - re-recorded 'best of' with English lyrics), fourth album 2005 (Rubicon), live-guitarist added to line-up, drummer leaves at end of 2005, replaced mid-2006, live album released in 2007 and the subject of this review. Plays 70´s type riff-based hard rock with lyrics in Swedish. Sort of tells you all to need to know except for who they are, namely: Peo Andersson (guitar), Dennis Berg (bass & backing vocals), Ulf Torkelsson (vocals), Fredrik Jansson (drums) and Robert Johansson (guitar).
Abramis Brama, which is the Latin name of the bream (a freshwater fish!) are a hard rocking band that really have negligible progressive rock credentials! So why a review on a prog site? Well it is obvious that the band are very tight and you can certainly hear them enjoying themselves on stage. Plus the boundaries of progressive rock are constantly changing and the genre is now so vast, the audience so diverse and fans generally receptive to all sorts of music, the album may prove of interest to quite a few of our readers. The publicity blurb from Transubstans Records suggests this live recording is the equal of seminal efforts by Motorhead, Deep Purple and Judas Priest, a rather odd choice of comparison as to my mind Abramis Brama don't have a lot in common with these bands, being more blues based. To that end comparisons with the heavy side of Led Zeppelin would be more appropriate. Indeed, the end of Bilder even features the riff from Zeppelin's Moby Dick, but thankfully not the 20-minute drum solo!
Other appropriate comparisons would be a blend of Mountain and Black Sabbath, both bands notorious for their monster riff-laden songs. On a more National level, legendary Swedish progressive rock group November also provide inspiration, the band even playing a great version of Men Mitt Hjärta Skall Vara Gjort Av Sten from the second November album back in 1971. This song is preceded by a short spruced up and electrified version of traditional 'folk' song version Barkbrödslåten.
The rest of the album features the best of their previous albums all neatly transferred to the live stage. That Abramis Brama are one of the most active live bands in Scandinavia is evident from their performance and unlike a lot of live albums, this actually sounds like it is entirely live, not tinkered with in the studio to get a note perfect performance. The exception being the bonus cut, a new track I Evighetens Nav the heavy blues of which (including some funky harmonica playing!) still manages not to sound out of place alongside the in-concert material. I can summarise no better than what is written on the clearspot website in their promotional blurb for the album: "Energetic, straight-forward stoner rock with catchy hooks, heavy riffs 'n' grooves and charismatic 'n' powerful vocals sung entirely in their native language". If that rocks your boat then take a listen to Mjölk Och Honung on the band's MySpace site to full appreciate the band in their element.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10